Non-Fiction Reviews

A Supernatural War

(2018) Owen Davies, Oxford University Press, £20 / US$27.95, x + 284pp, ISBN 978-0-198-79455-4


It is not often that you run across a piece of writing which is both unusual and packed with detail that even a military historian like myself has never encountered. Owen Davies A Supernatural War does just that. This is a fascinating survey of the way that the WWI affected belief in the supernatural. From the growth of spiritualism, to the use of medallions to ward off bullets, Davies spends the full three hundred pages detailing with it. The cover talks about ‘magic, divination and faith’ but there is a huge amount of material here at all levels. Some of it is to do with the social impact of the war. Davies discusses how antique customs started to revive themselves. In Germany, for example, people revived the custom of putting nails into wooden statues, a throwback to very ancient forms of tree worship, dating back to before the Romans entered the Tuetobourg forest.

As a history teacher, the parts I found most interesting relate to the daily use of amulets and good luck charms by ordinary troops. It shows that beads, medals and extracts from holy writings were as common as bootlaces, which was a real surprise.  Although the war was a century ago, we have a tendency to think of the Tommies in very modern terms. In fact, they were far closer to the Victorians than to us. This was the high point of the spiritualist movement. Religious practice was almost universal, as was a strange selection of local customs and superstitions. Soldiers on both sides readily accepted concepts like providence, luck, and the intervention of the spiritual into their world of mud and wire. The appearance of Angels was not thought exceptional (although this opened a religious divide, with Protestants feeling that it was more of a Catholic matter.) Some of this seems inexplicable, even ridiculous to us now. For example, there was a common belief in ‘writings from heaven’. These were supposedly magical papers which had been dropped by God to protect whoever carried them. Even at the time, there was a lot of scepticism about the idea, in many cases downright ridicule, but they were still in a lot of tunic pockets.

Overall – this is a very thoroughly researched and very detailed piece of writing. The illustrations, though limited, are well selected, and the notes at the end could have a serious investigator heading for their university library. My only word of warning would be that this is not a light text, far from it. Davies is a professor of Social History at Hertfordshire University and this is very much an academic test. There are endless fascinating stories and anecdotes here, but it’s not ‘101 Best Great War Stories.

Sebastian Phillips


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